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HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — If there’s a word that sums up the current mood of the West’s high command, it’s this: despair.
That’s the clearest and most alarming takeaway from discussions with the assorted diplomats, military officials and security wonks who assembled this weekend for the annual Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, a clubby gathering of leading democracies.
But the conversation centered less on fears about enemy capabilities, and much more on signs of the West’s own deepening malaise: a U.S. electorate riven over a volatile president on the brink of impeachment, European leaders squabbling among themselves, and everywhere a leadership void filled increasingly by populist insurgents and radicals.
“In the past we've been able to focus our attention on adversaries and not had to spend a lot of time shoring up the democracies, including our own,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “We don't have that luxury anymore. We've got to spend some of our time shoring up our own democracies."
For Kaine, a fierce critic of the president who ran in 2016 to defeat him, the subtext of that comment is obvious.
But Donald Trump is far from the only concern among Western officials, who are anxious not just about the short-term threat Russian machinations pose to their own increasingly polarized societies, but also the more insidious danger posed by an emerging Chinese superpower whose true intentions are under suspicion everywhere — from cowering nearby countries to corporate supply chains to far-flung Arctic outposts.
As one Western official put it, “Russia is like a series of hurricanes. China is climate change.”
The very opening of the forum betrayed the sense of urgency that permeated the entire weekend, from private breakfasts and dinners to ad hoc huddles over coffee and lobster rolls.
“Freedom and democracy cannot be taken for granted in any country at any time,” Peter Van Praagh, president of the forum, said in his welcoming remarks.
“We all need to double down on figuring out how to breathe back meaning into our values and institutions,” Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace, urged those gathered.
Democracy advocates can point to few success stories in recent years, and in fact most broad trends run the opposite way: freedom around the world has declined every year for the past 13 years, according to the NGO Freedom House, and academic researchers now fret about a “third wave of autocratization” sweeping the globe.
Within the major democracies, populist rabble-rousers are on the march, powered by social media and puffed up by economic discontent, dislocation and voters’ disillusionment with leaders who haven’t delivered on their promises. For every inspiring example of people power in places like Hong Kong, Iran and Sudan, there are equally alarming cases of countries sliding back into “illiberal democracy,” as in Hungary, or simply dysfunction and paralysis, as in the United Kingdom.
Yascha Mounk, a researcher who has done seminal work on democratic decline, said that even seemingly robust democracies like Chile and France that have seen at times violent popular demonstrations “are much more brittle than we realize.”
Mounk noted that it usually takes populations a decade or more to wake up to the danger of authoritarian leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in the meantime can tighten their grip on the state and make it nearly impossible for voters to dislodge them.
The impending British exit from the European Union is more subtly but unmistakably destabilizing the power dynamics among European countries, tempting French President Emmanuel Macron to seize a leading role in Britain’s absence.
A recent interview Macron gave to The Economist, in which he declared the “brain death” of NATO and questioned its once-sacred doctrine of collective defense — essentially rolling a grenade into next month’s summit — was still reverberating in hallway exchanges and off-the-record discussions in Halifax.
On the second day of the conference, The New York Times published a bombshell report on a private blowup between Macron and Angela Merkel, in which the German chancellor furiously scolded her French counterpart.
“I understand your desire for disruptive politics,” the Times quoted Merkel as saying. “But I’m tired of picking up the pieces. Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together.”
The EU, evolving from the ashes of World War II, was explicitly created to forestall future conflict between France and Germany. The prospect of open dissension among its two leading powers threatens to mire the 28-member pact in internal rancor—all while it is having trouble enough confronting external threats like Russia or managing a surge of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
And the impeachment inquiry in Washington is only helping Russia sow mischief and division in the United States and Europe, according to former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who sought to steer clear of the sharply partisan wrangling over Burisma and the Bidens.
Poroshenko said nobody had ever asked him about those topics while he was president — “any of it” — and warned Westerners against allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to pit them against each other.
“Who benefits from this?” Poroshenko asked. “There’s only one person: Putin.”
The ghost of John McCain
The Halifax Forum was co-founded by the late John McCain, and his spirit hung over the three-day conference. It was at this conference, in 2016, that McCain received a copy of the infamous Steele dossier from a retired British diplomat — setting off a frenzy of reporting on Trump and his campaign’s dealings with Russia that clouded his presidency from its inception.
McCain’s proteges, many of whom were in attendance, differed on what the Arizona senator would have made of the present moment. One guessed that McCain would have built coalitions across the aisle on the issues he cared about, including confronting China and Russia and shoring up NATO; another said he would have warned his colleagues against thinking they could manage Trump.
The senator’s absence was perhaps most keenly felt as news broke that Richard V. Spencer, the secretary of the Navy, was contemplating resigning over a dispute with the president over the fate of a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes. On stage at the conference, Spencer categorically denied the story — only to be summarily fired by Defense Secretary Mark Esper while many attendees were on the charter flight back to Washington.
There can be little question that McCain, a Navy pilot who never lost his fighter-jock instincts or his deep respect for military traditions, would have used all of his rhetorical and political firepower to bolster the brass in its showdown with the White House.
The emotional climax of the event came when McCain’s widow, Cindy, awarded a prize in his honor to “the people of Hong Kong,” whose struggle was introduced with a video interspersing footage of the young fighter pilot’s captivity in Hanoi with clips of street battles with police in Hong Kong.
In an impassioned speech accepting the award, Hong Kong lawmaker Emily Lau said she hoped the president would sign the Hong Kong bill and urged attendees to “do your best to ensure that there will be no rivers of blood in Hong Kong.”
Conference organizers made China and its seemingly inexorable rise the theme of the public sessions, from Huawei’s alleged efforts to penetrate Western societies through consumer technology to Beijing’s suspected ambitions in the Arctic, where China is building research stations the Pentagon suspects may be future military bases in disguise, and throwing around money in places like Iceland and Greenland.
If there is a Cold War with China, though, nobody here is willing to admit it.
“I think we refer to them as a peer competitor,” U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien said during a 45-minute news conference with journalists, even as he warned about the “concerted threat” posed by state-linked Chinese technology companies, notably Huawei, and blasted the Beijing government for running “concentration camps” in western China.
A call for a show of hands during one panel found just two or three participants willing to support a policy of “containment” of China, and the general consensus was that while the West needed to do something to stand up to Beijing, everyone disagreed on what.
And that, aside from the worry, was another theme of the confab: Western countries are in deep trouble, but few could agree on what needed to be done or just who, exactly, should lead the way.
“Martin Luther King said the long arc of history bends towards justice,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). “I think that there is a real question as to whether we’re coming to a fork in the road. I don’t think anyone feels that they figured this out completely.”